THE STAGE IS awash in hot-pink light, and the announcer is summoning his deepest, most dramatic voice. It's Friday night in the Arena México -- time for Viernes Espectacular, Mexico City's biggest wrestling event of the week. The crowd is buzzing in the cavernous old arena, children are squirming in the colorful seats and the star exótico of the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) is waiting to enter the ring. He is the Savage Strawberry, Mister Forbidden Love: Maximo.
He emerges in aviator shades and a white leather jacket speckled with rhinestones, collar turned up high. Lately, Maximo has been going for what he calls a gay Elvis look, growing sideburns and a pompadour under his trademark pink mohawk. The crowd shrieks and laughs and loses its mind as he bounds down the steps, past the lines of shimmying ring girls in bikinis. When the short, stocky wrestler leaps over the ropes and into the ring, the skirt on his purple Greco-Roman singlet flutters.
Once the three-on-three match begins, Maximo doesn't merely fling himself off the ropes like most wrestlers, he prances. Before launching himself out of the ring to torpedo one opponent, El Terrible, he looks to the crowd and lets his eyes linger, his expressive features visible from the farthest of the arena's 17,000 seats. With his foe cornered against the turnbuckles, Maximo stands, straddling him on the second rope. He holds the squirming El Terrible's head back and wags his tongue, taunting him as the audience chants BE-SO, BE-SO.
Then, finally, Maximo delivers the symbolic deathblow: a fat kiss on the mouth.
THE NEXT MORNING, Jose Cristian Alvarado Ruiz walks to the refrigerator, pulls out a beer and collapses into an easy chair. His pink mohawk is flat from sleep, and he's sore all over from a long Friday; before the match at Arena México, he fought two exhibitions at political rallies in Puebla. His wife is making instant coffee and preparing sandwiches with avocado and deli meat.
Mexico's professional wrestling tradition, known as lucha libre, is a deeply ingrained part of the national culture. Exóticos have long been a part of that tradition: wrestlers who dress in drag and kiss their rivals, never quite revealing whether the joke is on their opponents, themselves or conservative Mexican society at large. Most working today are gay members of an often ostracized minority for whom lucha libre is a statement of pride, or at least a campy, unrestrained extension of self. But the man who is Maximo isn't gay. He's the father of two boys and husband to a wife, India Sioux, who is also a wrestler. He's also a devout Catholic who prays at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Alvarado, 32, lives with his family in a simple two-bedroom apartment in a working-class neighborhood called San Felipe de Jesus. Next to the front door, in a pink suitcase, are his work clothes -- boots, one-shoulder singlets with sewn-on skirts (the color he wears depends on his mood) and Roman warrior-style wristbands. The white leather jacket that he wore the night before hangs casually over the bedroom door, rhinestones catching the sun that shines through the window.
He follows up the beer with a coffee. Alvarado does not have much downtime. Later this morning, he will trek back to Arena México for a workout. After that, he will ride atop a double-decker bus in Mexico City's gay pride parade.
Alvarado talks about Maximo in the third person, but to most of the world, his singular identity is a gay wrestler. Men grope him in nightclubs and ask him to dinner; old ladies call him hija -- daughter. The first time Alvarado wrestled on television as Maximo, his mother called his uncle in a panic to ask whether her son was gay. When he first met his wife, she assumed he was gay too.
The reason Maximo is so convincing, Alvarado says, is that he draws much of the character's bright personality from his own cheerful, outgoing nature. It also helps with theatrical requirements of being an exótico, including the kiss. The beso is the ultimate expression of the exótico's differentness in the ring -- the pinnacle of lucha libre as slapstick comedy. Sometimes it comes as a surprise, applied swiftly so as to shock the opponent into submission. But at its best, the beso comes after a long buildup, the spectators shouting for it, the opponent writhing frantically, eyes flashing with fear. Then, when the kiss is finally applied, the crowd erupts into shrieks of satisfied laughter.
CONTEMPORARY LUCHA LIBRE is big business on television but retains its early folkloric identity. Exóticos date from the golden age of the sport, which ran from the 1940s through the 1960s. One of the first was Sterling Davis, a Texan who moved to Mexico in 1942 to reinvent his wrestling career. Davis handed out flowers to women on his way to the ring, which earned him the nickname Gardenia. An old friend of Davis' back in the States, George Wagner, heard about the act. He decided to try something similar and in doing so became a pop-culture phenomenon, America's first great wrestling heel, the vainglorious Gorgeous George.
The old-time exóticos had been straight men harping on tired gay clichés. In the mid-1980s, that began to change. A new generation of openly gay wrestlers reveled in the exótico's sexuality, coyly tweaking stereotypes to confront the audience with the idea that being gay could be something more than a stage joke. They also ushered the exótico out of villainy. Lucha libre's organizing principle is good vs. evil: técnico contra rudo. Técnicos are graceful, honorable and skilled wrestlers. Rudos win with brute strength and by cheating when the referee's back is turned. Where the early exóticos had been exclusively rudos, some of the new generation began to assume the role of técnico.
It's not always an easy sell. Today, gay marriage is legal in Mexico City, but the overwhelmingly Catholic country still has one of Latin America's highest rates of antigay hate crimes, and casual homophobia is deeply ingrained. Even progressive people throw around slurs like puto and maricón without a second thought, and when Maximo steps into the ring, he's subjected to a string of insults. Observers suggest that lucha libre serves as an outlet for people to shout away their stress and anxieties, to let go of a long, hard week or month or life by drinking beer and engaging in the show. That chance for spectators to lose themselves in the action has been part of lucha libre since the earliest days. "Such catharsis," Mexican poet Salvador Novo wrote of luche libre in the 1940s, "is not only hygienic, not only psychologically healthy, but profoundly Catholic."
FEW EXÓTICOS, as with most athletes, reach the pinnacle of their sport, wrestling in front of 17,000 people and making a living like Maximo. Most settle for smaller payouts at smaller venues, places like the Centro Cívico de Tulpetlac. Squeezed in among low cinder block apartment buildings, it feels like an abandoned airplane hangar. Natural light filters in through holes in the corrugated metal roof. Day-old rainwater sits puddled on the rough concrete floor, which is littered with cigarettes and candy wrappers. A lone vendor offers up colorful masks to the hundred or so people in attendance. The Centro Cívico de Tulpetlac represents lucha libre de barrio -- Mexican professional wrestling in its most natural state: organic, local, not televised.
On this Sunday night, an exótico named Miss Gaviota is headlining. She emerges from the dressing room wearing a purple robe with a long, ruffled train that glides across the concrete floor. Her face is heavily made up, eyelashes long, hair perfect. As soon as the audience gets a good look at her, the catcalls and whistles begin. She sashays past the few rows of folding chairs and into the ring, smiling and flirting and fully inhabiting the moment.
As a headliner, Miss Gaviota has reached the peak of independent lucha libre. Becoming a licensed professional luchador requires a strenuous physical fitness test and skills examination, but passing does not guarantee success. At small venues like this one, the first wrestlers to appear on a given card are generally working for cheap, sometimes for free.
Wendy Martinez, who plays the role of Miss Gaviota, doesn't earn a living in lucha libre. During the day, she cuts hair in a side-street stand in Mexico City's historic center. She likes the job: Men and women greet Wendy as they pass her stand, and most of her customers are regulars; she's been working in the same spot for a decade. But she cannot imagine a life without wrestling. Miss Gaviota allows Martinez to access a part of her personality that styling hair doesn't. The Miss is for glamour; Gaviota is because she soars like a seagull.
As a child in Pueblo Nuevo, a small farming town northwest of Mexico City, Edwin Martinez liked to try on his mother's dresses and shoes. He always knew that inside he wasn't really an Edwin. So did the kids at school, who shouted the usual insults. School was where Edwin learned how to fight. But school lasted only until Edwin was 12. His family needed him to make money, so he got jobs in the fields around Pueblo Nuevo, planting corn and wheat. Soon after that, he left home for Mexico City, where he worked at a restaurant. After a few years, Edwin joined a transgender dance troupe and started the physical process of becoming Wendy. She then went to beauty school and -- inspired by her dance mentor, the exótico Pimpinela Escarlata -- began to train in lucha libre. She drew inspiration for her future character, the glamorous Miss Gaviota, from the dance show. Today, she talks about her character the way Bruce Wayne might discuss Batman -- as an amplified version of herself. "She comes from a person who is free, who loves to fly, who loves to travel," she says.
In the ring, Miss Gaviota, 34, doesn't shy away from playing up her sexuality, employing a repertoire of ass slaps, dry humps and kisses. But it's with small flourishes that she truly thrills: a flirtatious look to the crowd, a twirl of the wrist, a shake of her still-masculine hips. At one point, she encounters a stray dog just outside the ring and runs away, screaming in mock terror. Nobody seems to be concerned with the sexual politics of a transgender woman wrestling with men. "I'll fight anybody, man or woman," Miss Gaviota says.
Her match tonight is not tame: Chairs go flying and audience members are forced to clear out of their seats to get out of the way of the action. Finally, Miss Gaviota finds herself alone in the ring with a masked rudo named Hijo de Máscara Año 2000. She is limping from an earlier chair blow. He is dazed, eyes glassy through a black mask. She clasps his hand like they're about to dance and climbs to the top rope, drawing the crowd's breath into a collective gasp. Everybody knows what is supposed to come next: Miss Gaviota is supposed to fly.
But she doesn't. Instead, Miss Gaviota struts along the top rope, back and forth, back and forth, using her opponent's hand as both a balance and a prop. She's a burlesque dancer, working her audience into a tizzy of delayed gratification, her white boots with red roses toeing the rope. All glamour, all tease. The Centro Cívico de Tulpetlac is a nightclub now, and she is the star. Finally, she flings herself off the ropes, wraps her legs around her opponent's neck and scissors his body hard across the mat.
EVERY TIME Miss Gaviota or Maximo wrestles, there is always the specter of machismo and homophobia. During one of the undercards to Miss Gaviota's match, a rudo yelled to his opponent, "I'm going to beat you the way I beat my wife." The audience roared in gleeful response. As Martinez fought, a handful of spectators yelled gay slurs at her, just as they always do.
Alvarado used to be homophobic too, he says. But though his past made him an unlikely exótico, becoming a wrestler was inevitable. His grandfather was a wrestler, his father was a wrestler and his five uncles were wrestlers. When he was a child, Alvarado would see them beaten and bloodied, and he wanted to be a dentist or a doctor or anything except a luchador. But lucha libre is seen as hereditary, passed down in the blood.
As a teenager, Alvarado sold tortas in the Arena México while his dad wrestled. He helped his uncle run independent lucha libre promotions, taking tickets at the door and setting up folding chairs. But this was not supposed to be his future. He was enrolled in a certificate course in computer programming. Then one night a wrestler didn't show up to a card at a horse fair in Mexico State, and Alvarado's uncle flung him into the ring. He was untrained, 19 years old, scared for his life. "Without knowing what I was doing, I started throwing punches, I started grabbing chairs," he says. "And then one thing led to another and, just reacting, I was suddenly leaping off the third rope."
The adrenaline of the screaming crowd was addictive. His family set him up to train at the Arena México. He would wake up at 5 a.m. and take the metro to the gym. At night he would work the door at venues for his uncle. "After the first week, I was dead tired. I came home with fevers, with aches, with bruises on my body," he says. "But I liked it. I wanted more and more."
One of Alvarado's first characters as a professional was as a rudo based on Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. The Russian character had a Roman name: Maximo. At practices, Alvarado would tease other wrestlers, making gay jokes in the ring. A luchador named Shocker suggested that Maximo take the jokes a step further and try his hand as an exótico. Straight Maximo wasn't generating much traction, so Alvarado agreed to give it a shot. That's when he caught the eye of a CMLL trainer named El Satánico. "Son," Alvarado remembers El Satánico telling him, "you look good as a puto."
So Alvarado dropped the Russian gimmick and sought out a new identity, browsing the Internet for costume ideas until he landed on the Greco-Roman-style singlet. "But it was missing a certain touch," he says: the skirt. Alvarado's sister made his first uniform on a sewing machine at home. The first time he wore it, boos and curses rained down from the crowd. "It was hard to even get up in the ring," he says.
But the next time, Maximo came out with more confidence. He began to work the crowd and play up the comedic angle. Not long afterward, on a Sunday afternoon at the Arena Coliseo (the CMLL's smaller Mexico City venue), a técnico wrestler didn't show up for his place on the card. Maximo was called in as a substitute. He exaggerated his character even more, and Maximo was a hit. "It was exciting because the people began to shout MAX-I-MO," he says. "To hear the Arena Coliseo full, and hear Maximo, Maximo, it gave me goose bumps." Becoming Maximo changed his mind about gay people too. "It's not the same, but it's something close to walking in their shoes."
Twelve years later, Maximo is a star in the CMLL. He travels to Japan twice annually to fight and is recognizable even among people who have never stepped foot in the Arena México. He comes home to his apartment as bloodied as his father was.
In the beginning, playing gay was just a way to make money. But now he's more comfortable with what Maximo represents. He's gotten to know more gay people and says Mexico must find ways to stop antigay bullying. As the community has embraced him, he has embraced it back.
"There are little kids who like Atlantis, who like Volador, and put on their costumes," he says, naming two of lucha libre's biggest stars. "But there are also kids who play Maximo. It's very cool."